Got Mad, Got Even

Two former HL&P workers took revenge against the Light Company, but say the city settled for "chump change"

Info:Correction Date: 04/13/95
Got Mad, Got Even

Two former HL&P workers took revenge against the Light Company, but say the city settled for "chump change"

By Michael Berryhill
On a Friday morning in mid-January, Charles Pace had backed Houston Lighting & Power into a corner that disgruntled ex-employees of monolithic corporations usually only dream about. Pace had worked for HL&P for 24 years and six days when the utility dismissed him and 1,600 other employees in April 1992. In another year he would have been eligible for retirement with benefits.

HL&P justified the layoffs as a cost-cutting step that would make the company more efficient. Pace and Kenneth Williams, an HL&P nuclear safety worker who was laid off after 12 years, had other ideas about the company's efficiency. Teaming up with a network of angry ex-employees whose knowledge of the utility ran deep, they filed a rate case with the Public Utility Commission in June 1993, accusing the company of inefficiency, mismanagement and excessive earnings. An administrative law judge ruled their issues had merit and should be explored. It was the first time in the 20-year history of the PUC that individual ratepayers had forced a rate hearing.

Lawyers, auditors and economists from several state agencies and more than two dozen cities gradually joined the case as "intervenors." Their case, referred to as Docket No. 12065, became, Pace says, "like the county fair: bigger and better every year."

The intervenors had full investigative powers to probe nearly every aspect of HL&P's management decisions. That included everything from how the company had handled its troubled nuclear power plant to whether HL&P gave special treatment to politicians and its own executives when their lights went out. The complete record of Docket No. 12065 occupied 351 linear feet of shelf space at PUC headquarters, and that was just the beginning. The hearing before the PUC's administrative judges would take as long as nine months, and include 100 to 200 witnesses who would be cross-examined.

The best result was the amount of money the intervenors were talking about extracting from HL&P for the ratepayers. One of the highest-charging electric companies in Texas was facing a rate cut that could cost it from $2 to $3 billion over a five-year period.

No wonder HL&P was willing to negotiate. But when the intervenors broke up for lunch that day two months ago, Pace was dismayed to hear that Mayor Bob Lanier and the city of Houston had cut a deal with HL&P for less. Much, much less. And Pace and Williams and their colleagues in the Association of Laid-Off Employees weren't going to let that pass without at least raising their voices. They had fought too long and too hard for that.

Charles Pace and Kenneth Williams had never met in their years of working for HL&P. It was their firings that brought them together.

Pace, 53, grew up in rural Oklahoma and talks with a dry country understatement. He worked as a "materials technician" in HL&P parlance, or in his more straightforward description, as a warehouseman. He also worked in "investment recovery," helping the utility sell off used equipment. "We called it trash for cash," he explains.

Pace set out to be a schoolteacher, but his plans changed after he volunteered for the military and served in Vietnam. He's 30 percent disabled from post-traumatic stress syndrome, he says, and also suffers from side effects from Agent Orange, a defoliant that was sprayed widely in Vietnam. Before he helped bring the rate case against HL&P, Pace was a plaintiff in the Agent Orange case, where he grew familiar with legal maneuvering against large corporations.

A white-haired, tidily dressed man, he favors blue jeans, starched plaid shirts and sturdy walking shoes. He wears smoked, rimless eyeglasses and carries a black canvas shoulder bag full of the latest papers dealing with the complicated rate case.

Much of the work was done at the kitchen table at his Montrose house. A bachelor, he has spent $25,000 of his own money on the case, but he shrugs it off. "Money is not an issue to me," he says. "We did what we had to do."

Pace didn't know how much he needed Kenneth Williams when he first filed a complaint with the PUC in April 1993. The administrative law judge threw out his filing because Pace lived in Houston, and the city had original jurisdiction. But Pace remembered Williams from a meeting of the laid-off employees. Williams lived in northeast Harris County, outside the city limits. They refiled in his name.

Kenneth Williams is a sweet-natured, round-faced man who grew up in Houston and worked as a nuclear technician in submarines for the U.S. Navy. At HL&P he worked as a safety technician, helping inspect not only the South Texas Project nuclear plant but other power plants as well. His technical knowledge was invaluable, says Pace.

Because of company reorganization, Williams worked in five different departments at HL&P, he says, and in each of them "it didn't take a genius to see there were tens of thousands of dollars of waste."

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